Between July and December 2012, a three-member team of researchers from Individualland – comprising Zulfiqar Haider, Hamza Khan and myself – set out to document the personal journeys of former jihadis who had voluntarily and consciously chosen the path of violence by joining militant groups, but subsequently renounced it – or were on a break. Of the 70 jihadis who were interviewed in Jhang, Gujarat, Gujranwala, Hangu and Islamabad, among several cities in Pakistan, 27 had renounced the jihadi path. The team was primarily focusing on what their motivations were for joining certain jihadi groups, their apprehensions, the risks they faced as a consequence and the end result of their association with the terror groups.
Identifying and locating such individuals was not an easy task. If we expected to find them in deep, dark caves hidden somewhere in the mountains, that was not the case. We found them everywhere – in all the major cities, including the capital, Islamabad. They were living amongst us, but not everyone knew about them. Furthermore, our generalisations about them often proved to be wrong. The commonly held belief that the path to radicalisation always starts from poverty and deprivation was invalidated by our research. Although some of the people we met did fit that criterion, that was not always the case. People from educated and wealthy backgrounds also chose this path. Another myth that those involved in militancy are hardened killers without any feelings was also nullified.
So how did they get drawn to militancy and militant groups?
Certain areas in the Punjab and other provinces have jihadi recruiting and training camps, operating as summer camps. In the absence of proper training and sports facilities, our youth often tend to join these training camps, primarily for fun and recreation, and are lured into militancy. This was an important revelation that needs the urgent attention of the government. All jihadi camps operating under the cover of summer camps need to be identified and closely monitored.
Before we embarked on our research, we expected certain commonalities to emerge between the former militants, but we found the militants came from diverse backgrounds. There were those who had lived in abject poverty and misery, and others who were highly educated and came from affluent backgrounds.
In some cases, parents or family members had played a key role in sending their kith and kin on this path. In others, TV dramas, songs and radio programmes had led to their radicalisation. And then, there were the majority, who had chosen the path at the behest of clerics of the religious seminaries or madrassahs where they were studying.
When asked the reasons for joining the jihad, many of them said that while growing up they had heard stories of the atrocities committed by the ‘enemy’ (Hindus and Sikhs at the time of Partition; Indian soldiers in the Kashmir war; and Russian soldiers during the invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1980s) which compelled them to wage jihad.
Arsalan, for instance, who is an educated person, grew up with stories of the misery and pain that his parents and grandparents had faced in their lives at the time of Partition. This factor created an emotional imbalance in his personality, and all he wanted to do was to take revenge. He ended up joining the ranks of jihadis. However, after spending nine years as a jihadi, he realised that he was wrong. He had wasted nine precious years of his life. He feels that thousands of committed young men like himself live a life of violence to benefit a handful of opportunists who have nothing to do with religion, and are mostly driven by their own personal agendas. He considers himself lucky that he got the chance to leave. However, he still considers himself on a jihad – not the one he once experienced, but the jihad of raising his three children as decent human beings.
Unlike Arsalan, Hafeez maintains that it was the mainstream media that stirred his emotions and compelled him to join the jihad. He grew up watching TV plays in which jihad and fighting enemy soldiers was glorified. Incidentally, mainstream media at that time was largely controlled by the state. He started believing that jihad was the most important aspect of religion. However, Hafeez came to his senses when young recruits told him about the injustices and malpractices of their leaders. He became disgruntled and finally renounced the way of violence. Now, he accepts that he was wrong.
However, Faizan still thinks jihad is the only way to salvation. Although he is no longer fighting and is working to support his family, he considers himself to be on a ‘break.’ He thinks religion provides the greatest justification to kill infidels. He is still emotionally charged and determined to go back whenever his ameer gives the call.
Arsalan, Hafeez, and Faizan were just three among the 70 jihadis interviewed by us across Pakistan. There were others whose lives had followed a similar trajectory.
In the following pages, Newsline carries stories of those who renounced violence and returned to a normal life…
Running from Paradise
Ikhlaq belonged to an upper-middle class educated family of Mingora, Swat. He was a 16-year-old student studying at a local college in 2008, around the time that the Taliban had started to aquire clout in the area and the community. Gradually, Ikhlaq too started to be influenced by the Taliban and his involvement became evident to his circle of friends from the change in his views and habits. Ikhlaq proudly proclaimed that he had joined the militants and enjoyed the rank of a commander.
The situation in Swat deteriorated rapidly and the government was soon engaged in an armed conflict with the Taliban. The Taliban gained considerable control over Swat and the local population started fearing them. However, Ikhlaq saw nothing wrong in the Taliban’s manner of operation. In fact, he believed that the Taliban’s style of governance was a panacea for all Swat’s ills.
During his stint with the Taliban, Ikhlaq was assigned to a suicide mission. Before embarking on the mission, he went to meet one of his friends, Nazir, who tried to talk him out of it, but Ikhlaq remained adamant. Nazir then informed Ikhlaq’s family, so that they could perhaps pressurise him not to adopt such a course. Nazir somehow convinced Ikhlaq to visit his family, who were also in a state of shock. Ikhlaq’s father, especially, disapproved of his actions and after failing to convince him, disowned him. After the two left, the Taliban came to his father and threatened him. As a result, he suffered a stroke which left him paralysed. Ikhlaq’s sister, who had been married for four years and had two children, was also divorced, because her brother had links with the Taliban. Meanwhile, Ikhlaq’s commander got to know of his meeting with his father and upon his return, accused him of being a traitor. He was subsequently incarcerated and tortured by a Taliban outfit. There were other individuals present during that interrogation, who were not locals and Ikhlaq could not understand the language they spoke. A person from Bannu, was also executed in front him, his ‘sin’ was that he was a government employee.
This was a turning point in Ikhlaq’s life; he realised his mistake as he saw the true face of the Taliban. In the meantime, the army operation had begun in Swat and the security forces finally captured the camp, after a four-hour long battle. The army rescued all the prisoners and transferred them to Mingora. Ikhlaq ended up in Attock, where he once again met Nazir, who had left Swat during the operation. Nazir took him to his family who were overjoyed to see Ikhlaq alive and well. Ikhlaq renounced the path of violence and the radical ideology of Taliban. He is now trying to pick up the pieces of his life. However, the guilt of his sister’s divorce still haunts him.
A ray of hope: Army set-up rehabilitation centres help Deobandi and Salafi ex-militants adjust to a normal life.
Tariq was a 16-year-old, belonging to well-off middle class Deobandi family in Mingora. A diploma holder from a private medical institute, he was also doing his F.Sc. at a local college. Occasionally, he performed the functions of a compounder as well in his area. One of his brothers had a business and the other was a government employee. The Taliban had started to gain influence in Swat but Tariq never felt inclined towards the Taliban or their ideology; rather, he despised them. However, his mother was so inspired by the daily sermons of Mullah Fazlullah (also known as ‘Mullah Radio’) transmitted through his illegal FM radio station, that she became a devout follower of the Taliban and started convincing Tariq to join the outfit and go for jihad.
During this period, the Taliban started running a parallel government and promised to resolve all pending feuds. Tariq’s family also had a running feud with their relatives over a piece of property. Tariq thought that by joining the Taliban, he would be able to reclaim the property. So he started interacting with them and subsequently joined the group. He would attend college in the mornings and perform Taliban duties at night. Initially, he was put on guard duty with his commander or governor of the area. But during the execution of a local, Tariq showed his displeasure, which was considered an act of cowardice by the Taliban. The governor immediately assigned him to active duty in his area.
During his stay in the organisation, Tariq noticed that there were not just local Taliban, but foreign elements as well – they appeared to be Afghans – who were being treated like kings. The food served to them was better; even the water made available to them was bottled water. When Tariq expressed his displeasure over this biased treatment, he was imprisoned for a brief period. He observed that the senior Taliban leadership never prayed, while the rest of them were forced to pray five times a day. The reason given was that since they were in a situation of war, it was not incumbent upon the leadership to pray.
One day, Tariq’s commander ordered him to be part of a team which was assigned the task of attacking and capturing an army post. After the initial exchange of fire, their weapons failed to work. They also tried to utilise their grenades, but those proved to be faulty as well. The team retreated to the camp and informed their governor about the faulty weapons, but he responded with marked indifference.
The unit which Tariq belonged to was not exactly a favourite of the senior members, as its members questioned every move of the Taliban, and even the unit commander had shown his displeasure with the leadership. There was a rumour that they were being thrown to the wolves on purpose. This convinced Tariq to leave the outfit, but he was in a predicament as to how to stage a walkout.
When the army operation began in 2009, Tariq was sent to the front, along with others. During his journey, an army helicopter spotted them and attacked their vehicle. They escaped and mingled with the locals in order to reach Malakand. He learnt of the resentment among the populace against the Taliban and their radical mindset. He discovered that his family was in Mardan and an acquaintance told him that his house had been destroyed during the conflict. He did not approach his family; he still harboured resentment against his mother, who had insisted that he join Mullah Fazlullah. Later on, his brother somehow found him and convinced him to surrender before the authorities, which he did. Tariq stayed in jail for nine months and also attended the rehabilitation school set up by the military. He was 17 when he was released from jail. When Tariq returned home, he made his resentment against his mother very obvious. A week later, his mother died of a heart attack.
Tariq has renounced violence and now runs a clinic in the area.
Don’t Ask Questions
Hailing from Gujranwala, 32-year-old Wajid Ahmad, who is totally illiterate, was inspired by Organisation A and wanted to follow its teachings. Organisation A is one of the largest and most active militant Islamic organisations in the country and he wanted to be a part of it. In 1993, Wajid decided that joining a militant camp would not only help him in becoming a part of Organisation A but also fulfill his dream of becoming a jihadi. But once Wajid joined the training camp, he came face to face with the hypocrisy of the camp leaders. Every night the camp in charge would listen to Indian songs and crack obnoxious jokes about various Bollywood actresses with his friends.
The leaders would hold forth on the personal example of hard work and sacrifice set by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), but would make the young recruits wash their dirty clothes. They were expected to wait hand and foot on them. Once when a young boy questioned them about this, he was beaten black and blue for being impertinent. They talked about Islam being a religion of peace that was being portrayed as violent by the West. However, the training that he was being imparted in the name of religion was marked by violence and had nothing to do with Islamic ideology. Wajid abandoned the training camp after nine months. He was allowed to go only because his uncle knew the camp head. There were many boys who, like him, wanted to leave but were not allowed to.
Now Wajid works at an electrical workshop in Gujranwala. He lives with his parents and a brother, who is a tailor, and two sisters.
The Reluctant Militant
It was in 2008 that Ali, around 18 or 19 years old at the time, was encouraged by the mullah of a seminary to go and wage jihad in the name of God. Ali belonged to a small village in the Punjab, some 25 kilometres away from Sialkot. His parents had divorced early on in their marriage, and Ali was under the care of his mother, a teacher working in a government-run primary school on a meagre salary that was barely enough to make ends meet. His father belonged to the medical profession, but was known around town for his dishonest activities. Ali was just a typical young boy who used to balance his time between his school and madrassah. He was only five or six years old when he had joined the madrassah, where he aspired to memorise the Holy Quran by heart. From the beginning, Ali was under the tutelage of the mullah of the madrassah, who not only helped him to recite the Holy Quran but also motivated him to serve what he referred to as the ‘real’ cause. Little did Ali know that he was, in effect, being asked to become a militant and use guns and bombs.
Ali’s mother was content that her son would be serving a noble cause when he dropped out from the government school and became a full-time student at the religious seminary. As time passed, the teachings of the mullah began to take root in his mind. As Ali entered his teens, the mullah believed that the time was right to ask him to go and pursue the ‘noble’ cause. Ali agreed to the mullah’s suggestion. He was rushed to the city office of a militant organisation, along with other children who had been rounded up elsewhere by the mullah. From there he was taken to the district office in Sialkot, where all the other children were counted and transported to the yet higher division office in Gujranwala. All this time, Ali thought that he was about to devote his life to God’s service and his mother remained equally in the dark, believing that he was going for tableegh (preaching). Ali was told by the mullah that he just had to attend a 21-day camp, and if he didn’t like what he saw, he was free to go home. To put him at ease he was allowed to bring his mobile phone and other belongings with him, so he could contact his mother whenever he missed her.
From the division office in Gujranwala, the entire team of young recruits was shifted to Sheikhupura in the Punjab. They were sent to the initial camp, which was of 21 days. Here, they had to undergo psychological training which consisted of listening to motivational speeches along with offering prayers regularly and following Islamic principles. Ali could talk to his mother freely and other recruits were allowed to do the same. After 21 days of training, Ali, along with the other recruits, was transported to a totally new place, ‘K’, a town in a tehsil unit near ‘M’ in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The entire team, which had been recruited in the Punjab province, had now been shifted to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. At ‘K,’ their cell phones, along with their clothes (trousers and shirts), were confiscated and locked in a closed room. According to Ali, the camp authorities waited till nightfall, upon which they were taken a further ten kilometres into the mountains, away from ‘M.’ The mountainous camp, according to them, was called Maskar A (Camp A). Their initial level of training began here, lasting exactly one week, and they were given weapons. They were not allowed to fire them, but were trained to dismantle guns. The team of recruits were asked to follow a strict regimen which consisted of getting up early morning, offering prayers, reciting from the Holy Quran and doing some physical exercise. This was followed by breakfast and then weapons training. Ali and some other recruits realised that this was not what the mullah had said it would be, and he did not feel like continuing further. When Ali and the others asked for their cell phones and belongings to be returned to them, they were refused; however, they were told that they would get them back if they went along and experienced the ‘real’ camp. On the eighth day, the recruits were shifted another 50 kilometres into the mountains. They had now reached the real camp, where they were to be given the actual training to become militants. This camp was known as Maskar U. Here they were handed weapons, rocket launchers and bombs and were trained to use, assemble and dismantle them. Every Friday, a commander would come and give motivational speeches on the purity and nobility of jihad. Ali and a few other colleagues realised that they were stuck in the wrong place; they were irritated as they were being treated very harshly and had no contact with the outside world, not even with their parents. Ali’s mother was still under the impression that he was on a tour to preach about Islam.
At the closing ceremony of this training, the commander returned to the camp to give another speech and motivate the young teenage boys to go further. There were a total of 23 to 24 recruits, out of which only ten or eleven expressed a wish to proceed further. When Ali and his friends demanded that they be allowed to return home, the group rejected their plea and informed them that it was now mandatory for them to serve the cause. However, on the 24th day of the training camp, Ali and two other boys stole some guns, took their belongings and made an attempt to escape. Ali recalls escaping from the mountainous region at around 9 am on foot and walking for 17 hours continuously until they reached ‘T’ in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at 2 am the next morning. Upon reaching ‘T,’ they offered their prayers in the mosque where members of the tableeghi jamaat were staying. Ali and his friends told them their story and asked them for some money so they could go back home. The group tried to persuade them to accompany them as they were actually headed on a tableeghi mission, but upon their insistence, the head of the group gave the boys some money. From ‘T,’ the boys took a public bus to ‘M,’ from where they boarded a bus to Rawalpindi, where Ali met up with his relatives. They provided him with shelter, food and clothes, and he finally made his way, and returned back to his parents house in Pasrur.